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document and reference that can inform or enlighten us upon the main subjects of Byron's life and writings. In the poems the practice of giving in notes the rough drafts and rejected versions of passages and lines, so as to show the poet at work, seems to us not altogether fair to him, and is occasionally distracting to those readers who enjoy a fine picture without asking how the colours were mixed, or are not anxious about the secrets of a good dinner. Yet to students of method, to the fellow-craftsman, and to the literary virtuoso, these variant readings, of which there are sometimes four to a single line, may often be of substantial interest, as throwing light on the tendencies and predilections of taste which are the formative influences upon style in prose or poetry.
Probably the most favourable circumstance for a poet is that he should only be known, like the Divinity of Nature, from his works; or at least that, like Wordsworth, he should keep the noiseless tenour of his way down some secluded vale of life, whereby his poems stand out in clear relief like fine paintings on a plain wall. Is there any modern English poet of the first class, except Byron, whose entire prose writings and biography are bound up in standard editions with his poetry ? The question is at any rate worth asking, because certainly there is no case in which the record of a poet's private life and personal fortunes has so greatly affected, for good or for ill, his poetic reputation. Those who detested his character and condemned his way of living found it difficult to praise his verses; they detected the serpent under every stone.
For those who were fascinated by the picture of a reckless prodigal, always in love and in debt, with fierce passions and a haughty contempt for the world, who defied public opinion and was suspected of unutterable things—such a personality added enormous zest to his poetry. But now that Byron's whole career has been once more laid out before his countrymen, with light poured on to it from every cranny and peephole, those who take up this final edition of his life and works must feel that their main object and duty should be to form an unbiassed estimate of the true value, apart from the author's rank and private history, of poems which must always hold a permanent place in the high imaginative literature of England.
It may be said that every writer of force and originality traverses two phases of opinion before his substantive rank in the great order of merit is definitely fixed : he is either depressed or exalted unduly. He may be neglected or cheapened by his own generation, and praised to the skies by posterity; or his fame may undergo the inverse treatment, until he settles down to his proper level. Byron's reputation has passed through sharper vicissitudes than have befallen most of his compeers; for though no poet has ever shot up in a brief lifetime to a higher pinnacle of fame, or made a wider impression upon the world around him, after his death he seems to have declined slowly, in England, to a point far below his real merits. And at this moment there is no celebrated poet, perhaps no writer, in regard to whom the final judgement of critics and men of letters is so imperfectly determined. Here is a man whom Goethe accounted a character of unique eminence, with supreme creative power, whose poetry, he admitted, had influenced his own later verse-one of those who gave strenuous impulse to the romantic movement throughout England, France, and Germany in the first quarter of this century, who set the fashion of his day in England, stirred and shaped the popular imagination, and struck a far resonant note in our poetry. Yet after his death he suffered a kind of eclipse; his work was much more unduly depreciated than it had been extolled; while in our own time such critics as Matthew Arnold and Mr. Swinburne have been in profound disagreement on the question of his worth and value as a poet. Nor is it possible for impartial persons to accept the judgement of either of these two eminent artists in poetry, since Arnold placed Wordsworth and Byron by anticipation on the same level at this century's end, whereas Wordsworth stands now far higher. And the bitter disdain which Mr. Swinburne has poured upon Byron's verse and character, though tempered by acknowledgement of his strength and cleverness, and by approbation of his political views, excites some indignation and a sympathetic reaction in his favour. One can imagine the ghost of Byron rebuking his critic with the words of the Miltonic Satan, “ Ye knew me once no mate For you, there sitting where ye durst not soar;' for in his masculine defiant attitude and daring flights the elder poet overtops and looks down upon
the fine musical artist of our own day. Some of the causes which have combined to lower Byron's popularity are not far to seek. The change of times, circumstance, and taste has been adverse to him. The political school which he so ardently represented has done its work; the Tory statesmen of the Metternich and Castle
reagh type, who laid heavy hands upon nations striving for light and liberty, have gone down to their own place; the period of stifling repression has long ended in Europe. Italy and Greece are free, the lofty appeals to classic heroism are out of date, and such fiery high-swelling trumpet notes as
* Yet, Freedom ! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like a thunderstorm against the wind,' fall upon cold and fastidious ears. • The day will come, said Mazzini in after-years, 'when the democracy will ac
knowledge its debt to Byron;' but the demos is notoriously ungrateful, and the subject races have now won their independence. The shadow of discouragement and weariness which passed over sensitive minds at the beginning of this century, a period of political disillusion, has long been swept away by the prosperity and sanguine activities of the Victorian era ; and the literary style has changed with the times. Melancholy moods, attitudes of scornful despair, tales of fierce love and bloody revenge are strange and improbable to readers who delight in situations and emotions with which they are familiar, who demand exactitude in detail and correct versification; while sweet harmonies, per
1 fection of metre, middle-class pastorals, and a blameless moral tone came in with Tennyson. In short, many of the qualities which enchanted Byron's own generation have disenchanted our own, both in his works and his life; for when Macaulay wrote in 1830 that the time would come when his rank and private history will not be regarded in * estimating his poetry,' he took no account of future editions enlarged and annotated, or of biographies of The * Real Lord Byron;' whereby it has come to pass, as we suspect, that the present world knows more of Byron's private history than of his poems. His faults and follies stand out more prominently than ever; his story is more attractive reading than most romances; and the stricter morality of the day condemns him more severely than did the society to which he belonged. Psychological speculation is now so much more practised in literature than formerly, there is so much more interest in the man * behind the book,' that serious moral deliquencies, authentically recorded and eagerly read, operate more adversely than ever in affecting the public judgement upon Byron's poetry, because they provide a damaging commentary upon it. His contemporaries—Coleridge, Keats, Shelley-lived so much apart from the great world of their day that important changes in manners and social opinion have made much less difference in the standard by which their lives are compared with their work. Their poetry, moreover, was mainly impersonal. Whereas Byron, by stamping his own character on so much of his verse, created a dangerous interest in the man himself; and his empeiria (as Goethe calls it), his too exclusively worldly experience, identified him with his particular class in society, rendering him largely the responsible representative of a libertinism in habits and sentiments that was more pardonable in his time than in our own. His poetry belongs also in another sense to the world he lived in: it is incessantly occupied with current events and circumstance, with Spain, Italy, and Greece as he actually saw them, with comparisons of their visible condition and past glories, with Peninsular battlefields, and with Waterloo. Of worldliness in this objective meaning his contemporaries had some share, yet they instinctively avoided the waste of their power upon it; and so their finest poetry is beautiful by its detachment, by a certain magical faculty of treating myth, romance, and the mystery of man's sympathetic relations with universal Nature.
A recent French critic of Chateaubriand, who defines the romantisme of that epoch as no more than a great waking up of the poetic spirit, says that the movement was moral and psychological generally before it spread into literature. In criticising Byron's poetry we have to bear in mind that he came in on the first wave of this flood, which overflowed the exhausted and arid field of poetry at the end of the last century, fertilising it with colour and emotion. The comparison between Byron in England and Chateaubriand in France must have been often drawn. The similarity in their style, their moody, melancholy outlook upon common humanity, their aristocratic temper, their self-consciousness, their influence upon the literature of the two countries, the enthusiasm that they excited among the ardent spirits of the generation that reached manhood immediately after them, and the vain attempts of the elder critics to resist their popularity and deny their genius — form a remarkable parallel in literary history. As Jeffrey failed at first to discern the promise of Byron, so Morellet could only perceive the obviously weak points of Chateaubriand, laying stress on his atfectations, his inflated language, his sentimental exaggeration, upon all the faults which were common to these two men of genius, the defects of their qualities, the
energetic rebound from the classic level of orderly taste and measured style. It was the ancient régime contending against a revolutionary uprising, and in poetry, as in politics, the leaders of revolution are sure to be excessive, to force their notes, to frighten their elders, and to scandalise the conservative mind. Yet just as Chateaubriand, after passing through his period of depression, is now rising again to his proper place in French literature, so we may hope that an impartial survey of Byron's verse will belp to determine the rank that he is likely to hold permanently, although the high tide of Romance in poetry has at this moment fallen to a low ebb, and the spell which it laid upon our forefathers may have lost its power in an altered world.
It must be counted to the credit of these Romantic writers that at any rate they widened and varied the sphere and the resources of their art, by introducing the Oriental element, so to speak, into the imaginative literature of modern Europe. They brought the lands of ancient civilisation again within the sphere of poetry, reviving into fresh animation the classic glories of Hellas, reopening the gates of the mysterious East, and showing us the Greek races still striving, as they were twenty-two centuries earlier, for freedom against the barbarous strength of an Asiatic empire. Byron was the first of the poets who headed this literary crusade for the succour of Christianity against Islam in the unending contest between East and West on the shores of the Mediterranean, and in this cause he eventually died. Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo were also travellers in Asia, and had drawn inspiration from that source; they all instinctively obeyed, like Bonaparte, the impulse which sends adventurous and imaginative spirits toward that region of strong passions and primitive manners, where human life is of little matter, and where the tragic situations of drama and fiction may at any time be witnessed in their simple reality. The effect was to introduce fresh blood into the views of old romance; and Byron led the van of an illustrious line of poets who turned their impressions de voyage into glowing verse, for the others only trod in his footsteps and wrote on his model, while Lamartine openly imitated him in his Dernier Chant de Childe Harold. For the first time the Eastern tale was now told by a poet who had actually seen Eastern lands and races, their scenery and their cities, who drew his figures and landscape with his eye on the objects, and had not mixed his local colours by the process of skimming books of travel for myths, legends,